When I was a kid, we were taught a few rules, among which was never talk about religion or politics in polite company.
Rarely have such quaint rules felt more timely. The heat of recent months amid increasingly bad news from Iraq has divided Americans as never before. At a recent meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, one speaker cited a poll that posed this question: Do you think George W. Bush has united or divided America? Responses were split right down the middle, 50/50.
These days I'd rather spend a night in Abu Ghraib, preferably absent Lynndie England, than talk politics at a dinner party. Friends report crossing streets unnecessarily to avoid a Rumsfeld debate. Longtime acquaintances take a silent measure of one another: Are you one of "them" or one of "us"?
"Them" being the neocon-chickenhawk blunderers who got us into this colossal mess, stirring the hornet's nest with arrogance and not much else. Or "us," the knew-better crowd who prefer complex sentences with their nuanced diplomacy.
Anxiety and passion are neck-in-neck owing in large part to the imagery of the past few weeks - from hideous photographs of naked Iraqi detainees posed in sexual arrangements, to the charred remains of murdered and mutilated Americans in Fallujah, to the videotaped beheading of American civilian Nick Berg.
These full frontal assaults on our sensibilities have taken a toll, unleashing a certain hysteria upon the land. Although, I hasten to add, readers remind me it's the media and politicians, not they, who are hysterical. They may be right.
Editor and Publisher, the newspaper industry's trade magazine, reports that editorial opinion on the war is "topsy-turvy." Conservatives are turning against the war, while the usually less enthusiastic New York Times is calling for more troops.
The usually moderate Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, is calling not only for troop withdrawal but for Bush withdrawal. Neuharth says Bush should make like Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War and, for the good of the party and the nation, make a hasty retreat back to the ranch.
And then we have Ted Kennedy.
In saner times, those six words would be the end of the story, but these are not sane times, and so the Massachusetts senator gets to make outrageous statements with relative impunity. Kennedy conquered new territories in the foggy frontier of moral equivalency when he said:
"Shamefully, we now learn that Saddam's torture chambers reopened under new management - U.S. management."
Kennedy's hold on America's attention remains one of modern life's great unsolved mysteries. Why is this man still talking? Why is anyone still listening? Where is Al Neuharth when you really need him?
Stepping up to the plate is Alabama's Mobile Register, which Saturday accused Kennedy of hate speech and urged him to go home. For good.
"To go so far as to impugn the Bush administration, and the U.S. armed services, as having deliberately 'reopened' Saddam Hussein's 'torture chambers' is to go beyond the acceptable limits of public discourse," went the editorial.
Beyond acceptable limits seems to be where we're headed this election cycle. We are rattled, understandably, but we're nuts to think that exiting now is an option. Tuck tail and we'll be breathing terrorist dust for the indefinite future. Nick Berg was a prelude.
The Arab world would not go broke gambling on whether Americans have the stomach to see this mission through. Oh, it was all right for a while, as long as things were going according to "plan." Freedom, after all, is good; Saddam gone is good; kids smiling with soldiers is good. But please no prison pictures. No bullying. And when the going gets tough - when the enemy shows his true face - what, we can take a hint?
Keeping perspective is especially tricky in the digital age. Combine 24/7 punditry from media hairdos, instant replay with Internet beheadings, and insta-photos from Interrogation Central, and you've got a recipe for weak wills. Suddenly, we're all on a girly house party, going, "ewwww," and looking for the remote control and a better story.
Those who switched to "60 Minutes" Sunday night caught a charming piece that tests our moral equivalency reflex. In France, where Muslims comprise 10 percent of the population, imams advise constituents that it's OK for men to beat their women as long as they avoid the eyes and nose.
Now is no time to go topsy-turvy. When public discourse degenerates to hate speech, when friends cross streets to avoid one another, when Americans can't tell the difference between Bush and Saddam, the terrorists may well be winning.